Archive for the '2006 Book Challenge' Category

Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness

Friday, June 23rd, 2006

#s 28, 29, and 30 in my book challenge for the year, and 4, 5, and 6 of my summer reading challenges were the three Scott Pilgrim volumes. I read and reviewed #s 1 and 2 last year, and re-read them before #3 because I couldn’t remember who was who. The Scott Pilgrim stories are young adult graphic novels that reference music, magic, and video games. While manga is the obvious influence, I was more than once strongly reminded of Trudeau’s Doonesbury.

Scott is an amiable goofball who has a way with the ladies. He is still traumatized by his breakup with Envy Adams, he did a bad job of breaking up with his high school girlfriend Knives Chau, and he is trying to date the mysterious Ramona Flowers, but he must first defeat the league of her seven evil ex-boyfriends. The graphic novels are all fast reads, and I still highly recommend 1 and 2. I laughed out loud during both several times, and read bits aloud to my husband.

From Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life (Vol. 1)

“It’s…It’s her shoes. She was wearing these shoes. These HAUNTING SHOES.”

“What’d they look like?”

“They looked…really…uncomfortable.”

From Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Vol. 2)

“What kind of idiot would knowingly date a girl named Knives?”

From Scott Pilgrim & the Infinite Sadness (Vol. 3)

“N…No way! Bionic arm?! Knives…!Oh my God, Knives! Your hair! She punched the highlights out of your hair!”

#3 tells the backstory of Scott’s ex, Envy Adams. I didn’t think it was as great as 1 and 2. The back and forth between present and past was jarring. Envy wasn’t at all likeable, as is Knives Chau–seventeen years old–Scott’s more recent ex. It is funny, especially some bits about Envy’s boyfriend (and Ramona’s evil ex #3) Todd’s veganism. I found it more sad than funny, though. Perhaps I should have expected that, given the subtitle.

While I was less enamored of #3, I still like the books and these characters, and I want to know what happens. What is in Ramona’s past? Who is Gideon? What’s going to happen with that guy who kidnapped Kim when she and Scott were in high school, and who shows up at the end of #3? What’s the deal with Kim–will this cool drummer chick be more than just an ex of Scott’s?

If Scott has to defeat one evil ex-boyfriend in each volume, and if each volume comes out once a year, there’s four more years till the end of the story. Perhaps author Bryan Lee O’Malley can put two boyfriends in each of the next two volumes, because four years is too long to wait.

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

Thursday, June 22nd, 2006

#27 in my book challenge for the year, and #3 in my summer reading challenge, I feel abashed that I couldn’t finish Catcher in the Rye over the weekend for a 48 hour reading challenge, but I did finish it Monday. I wanted to read it prior to reading King Dork, but the library due date for KD made that inadvisable. I definitely recommend reading both, with Catcher first.

First, I am not a member of the Catcher cult, as it’s called in KD. I wasn’t forced to read Catcher in high school. Whether this says something good or bad about my high school English education is debateable, but I think it was bad. Over four years, the required reading list was short–probably what I’d go through in a month or two nowadays. Instead of entire novels, I remember reading a lot of excerpts from big hardback textbooks with shiny pages. I read Catcher on my own at some point as part of my self-education (or autodidacticism, as it’s called at Mental Multivitamin) to compensate for deficiencies in my schooling.

Catcher, like KD, does a good job portraying what a social horror high school is, and how difficult it is to survive. Catcher is also historically important, not just as a good novel, but because it helped to establish the Young Adult novel paradigm–it gave a distinct voice to a teenaged character who told the story in first person, and sometimes in present tense. It also proved to publishers that teenagers were legitimate members of a critical reading audience.

Because I have affection for the YA niche, I thought I would love Catcher. Perhaps I was negatively influenced by the de-pedestalizing of Catcher in KD, but I finished Catcher feeling profoundly ambivalent. I started the book annoyed at Holden and his affected voice. I then realized it was bluster, not unlike Gatsby’s, and that it hid a character who seemed to have a good head and a good heart. As the story wore on, though, I began to sense the presence of the writer showing off by creating a singular character, and having him repeat, ad nauseum, some suspiciously Salinger-esque negative opinions of phony people, Hollywood, and society in general. What bothered me most, though, was Holden’s repeated idealization of childhood. This novel is supposed to be about the difficult transition from childhood to adulthood, but I found Holden’s view of childhood at least obsessive, if not fetishistic.

Catcher in the Rye deserves to be a classic. It’s well written and historically important. It does not deserve to be uncritically lauded as an every-person’s book, though. There is some creepy, disturbing stuff in there, and I don’t think all of it was intentional.

48 Hours: Yet Another Book Challenge

Friday, June 16th, 2006

I’ve been checking out a few new book and reading blogs lately. Today at Book Moot I found a link to MotherReader’s 48-hour reading challenge. Since the challenge arose from her reading backlog of literature for older kids/teens, and since I have several of that kind of book already on my summer reading challenge list, I think I’ll give it a shot. I’m also interested in showing when and how I read, because I hear other moms say they don’t have time to read. I’ve got a four-month old and a 2 year old, and I make time to read for myself, in addition to the reading I do to them. Other things go undone, but reading ranks right up there with eating, sleeping, childcare and writing. Most everything else is negotiable.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Tuesday, June 13th, 2006

#26 in my book challenge for the year, and #2 in my summer reading challenge was Sense and Sensibility by Austen. I very much enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Emma, so I was surprised by how little I liked S & S. The first few pages of the book are entirely concerned with explaining in detail why the two heroines, Elinor and Marianne, are poor. The book finished stronger than it started, but I was not at all surprised by its surprise and the characters did not engage my interest. The two heroines and their love interests are the four “best” characters in the book, but I found none of them very complex or compelling. Almost without exception, all the other characters are mean-spirited, stupid, or both. S & S was published before P & P, but parts of them were written concurrently. I think the later publication of P & P allowed Austen valuable time to develop as a writer. Like P & P, S & S is about issues of class, and public/private life. They both began as epistolary novels. But in S & S, Austen did not yet have the light touch with her non-central characters that enabled them to be interesting, sympathetic or funny even though not as well-behaved and insightful as the main characters.

King Dork by Frank Portman

Sunday, June 11th, 2006

#25 in my book challenge for the year, and #1 in my YA-centric summer reading challenge was King Dork by Frank Portman, which I first saw recommended at Blog of a Bookslut. King Dork is Tom Henderson, a sub-normal high school kid who spends a lot of his days trying to avoid getting beaten up or ridiculed. Things get complicated for him after he discovers his dead dad’s copy of The Catcher in the Rye, kisses a mystery girl at a party, and gets his own guitar. Tom and his alphabetical order friend Sam Hellerman have been talking about being in a band for years. Once they actually get guitars, they discover the real challenge:

I don’t know how real bands manage to have three or more people all play the same thing at the same time–it was clearly beyond our capabilities.

Like David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, this is a teen-boy story that at times sounds a little too knowing. But I found it so funny and likeable that I forgave the occasional lapse in voice. I was pleasantly reminded of the television show Freaks and Geeks.

A reader review that Portman links to from his blog chided the book for its sexism.

…but what of the ladies? There is not a single admirable woman or girl in this novel, not even any hint that perhaps women are more than simply things to look at. They all come across as crazy in one way or another, with very few (non-physical) redeemable qualities.

I didn’t find the female characters crazy and unredeemed. I think Portman did a good job conveying how baffled Tom was by them, which said more about Tom than them. I found the female characters complex, funny, and demanding, especially his mom, his shrink, and his younger sister. Yes, one of the things the main character obsesses about is sex with girls. But when he actually begins to be sexual with girls, they are the ones calling the shots, and demanding physical and emotional things of him, not the other way ’round. In the first sexual encounter in the book, the girl had Tom bring her to orgasm, and she did not reciprocate. There are some later blowjobs, which the previously quoted review dismisses as meaningless. I saw them as part of teenagers learning about sexuality. Additionally, while it might seem biased or gratuitous that there was fellatio but not cunnilingus, I think that’s for practical reasons–the former is usually lower on the sexual learning curve than the latter.

King Dork the book, and King Dork the character, have a lot going on. While the narrative wanders, the story and its characters are always engaging, and I frequently laughed out loud. I think my favorite character was Little Big Tom, King Dork’s stepdad. “Ramoning” and “glad all over” are hilarious and apt euphemisms. I found the ending satisfying, even while it’s not tidy, and perhaps because it isn’t.

Further reading:
The King Dork Reading List, and Discography, both with Tom Henderson commentary

Summer Reading List, Clarified

Thursday, June 8th, 2006

I had this lovely vision of being able to read the books for my book group, the books for the online discussion of Muriel Sparks, the YA books I already owned, plus a bunch of new and classic YA books from the library. The good news is that I found a bunch of good YA books at my favorite used bookstore. The bad news is that when I made a list of all the books I thought I’d like to read for the summer, there were thirty nine, which is about half again as many books as I’ve read in the first five and a half months of this year. So I’ll limit my to-read list to those I own. The starred books are ones that have been on my shelves for a while. The others are newer purchases. Allowing for the chaos factors of library reserve queues and friend recommendations, I think a list of twenty will be plenty challenging.

King Dork by Frank Portman
*Sense and Sensibility by Austen
*Catcher in the Rye by Salinger
Scott Pilgrim, Vol. 3 by Bryan O’Malley
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Sparks
another Sparks book
*Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
*Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Prop by Pete Hautman
*Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty
*Second Helpings by McCafferty
Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier
Magic Lessons by Larbalestier
*The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Steven Chbosky
*Satellite Down by Rob Thomas
*Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
Monkey Island by Paula Fox
Baby by Patricia Maclachlan
I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier
We All Fall Down by Cormier

Summer Reading

Wednesday, June 7th, 2006

Amanda’s Weekly Zen, (whose site I found via Pages Turned) put out a summer reading challenge. It’s too late to sign up (I missed it, too) but there’s a forum to talk about summer reading challenges. You set your own challenge, and then post about what you’re reading and what progress you’re making.

Initially, I thought I wasn’t interested in a summer challenge, since I already have my fifty book goal for the year, of which I want at least 25% to be books I’ve owned for over a year but haven’t yet read. (Is that as overly complicated to understand as it was to write?) But when I thought about what I WANTED to read, I was able to clarify a reading project that’s been bubbling for a while, but which I’ve tried to dismiss, since it would involve way more library books than sitting-on-the-shelf-at-home books. Once it broke into my consciousnes, though, I could no longer deny it. I want to do a young-adult centered reading program for the summer. I want to read some of the classics that I missed the first time ’round. As both a fan and a writer of YA fiction, I think it’s remiss of me not to have read The Chocolate War, for example. I also want to read some of the more recently released YA titles that I’ve put off this year in my attempt to be less of a slave to the libarary reserve system when I have so many deserving books that I’ve purchased but not yet read.

I have a couple YA titles on my home shelves, both unread and to re-read, so I think this can fit into my overall challenge for the year. I’ll have to detour a few times since I belong to a book group, but overall, I’d like to make my summer challenge YA-centric.

Also, a reading group hosted by Bookworm (also found at Pages Turned) caught my interest. There’s going to be a discussion of the late Muriel Sparks’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the end of this month, as well as discussion of her other works. I very much enjoyed The Driver’s Seat last year, so I may add this to the summer list as well.

The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore

Monday, June 5th, 2006

#24 in my book challenge for the year was The Memory Artists by Jeffrey Moore. This is not an easy book to summarize succinctly. The main character is Noel, a synesthete and hypermnesiac. His mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, and three friends are the other neurological misfits who surround him. The entire story is supposedly written by a third party (Moore) and edited by a fictional neurologist, Emile Vorta, whose self-congratulatory views are related through an often hilarious set of endnotes. The narrative switches between first-person diary entries and third person. The font switches to emphasize this, though I don’t think the visual cue is necessary, except in the few instances that it happens within one chapter. One chapter is a discussion between Noel and another character about the details of synesthesia. The information is necessary, but I find dialogue an awkward way to convey a lot of factual information. The neurological conditions are fascinating, as are the insights into Noel’s kaleidoscopic mindworks. The humor is clever and dark. The structure of the book is complex but serves the story. The mother’s decline, told by Noel and though her own diary, is tragic. I found all the characters engaging, but I felt the males were more thickly characterized than the females. But the strength of this novel lies most in the emotional interactions of its characters. The characters all cared about, and for, each other. That made it easy to care about them, and their fascinating stories.

The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis

Wednesday, May 31st, 2006

#23 in my book challenge for the year was The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis. This was a complex, challenging and disturbing book. Set in the New England town of Varennes, its omniscient point of view shifts among characters, animals, and sort of wide-focus panning of history. The prose defies a quick reading. The characters are beautifully drawn, which is suprising given the number of them. I cared about many of them, which is why I found the novel so troubling. In general, good things did not happen. I love a good redemptive ending. This novel not only didn’t have one, but also suggested that redemption may be only lucky accident.

One thing that bothered me in this novel that had so much going on was an apparent mistake. One character at a dinner early on says, “Help yourself to some of Mrs. Banner’s mashed potatoes, girls.” (p. 28) but on the next page, the omniscient narrator states “The room smelled like potatoes and varnish and baby powder, though they weren’t having potatoes but Le Sueur canned peas…” This novel is juggling so much that I needed to feel the author was in complete control. This passage made me doubt it early on, though nothing else in the book did.

Overall, though, the book was provocative, thoughtful, dark, and funny, like this passage I particularly liked:

The minds of twelve-year-old girls are wound round and round with golden chains, padlocked shut, and the key tossed out the car window on the way to the fast-food restaurant. This is probably a good thing, since what they keep in there isn’t always very nice. Human sacrifices, cockeyed sexual advantures both sadistic and masochistic, also kitties with balls of yarn and puppies chewing on slippers and soft pink babies and disembowelings. (p. 59)

My Sister’s Continent by Gina Frangello

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2006

#22 in my book challenge for this year was My Sister’s Continent by Gina Frangello, a recommendation from Blog of a Bookslut. I nearly stopped reading at page 23 because of writing issues, but a friend said it was worth it, so I continued and am glad I did.

I’ll cover the writing issues first, because most of them are technical issues. Perhaps they’re matters of taste, but they were pervasive enough to repeatedly interrupt my progress through the book. There were overwritten sentences, like “Her hair smelled cold like Christmas.” There were passages of unwieldy dialogue. The framing device for the novel is clumsy. It is supposed to be a re-writing of one twin’s psychological case study to include the perspectives of both twins. This leads to a thoroughly wacked point of view. It’s told in first person by one twin who includes her sister’s experiences in third person (both in near past and in flashback), but occasionally goes into second person to address her shrink, the author of the original case study. It begins and ends with diatribes against the shrink that felt unearned, because the shrink sessions were such a small part of the overall narrative.

In spite of my problems with writing and structure, I really liked the book. It is a contemporary re-telling of Freud’s Dora case, and is filled with complex, interesting characters. There’s dysfunction, illness, mystery and a lot of dark, messy sex. There’s some Atwood-ian ambiguity at the end, leaving the reader to decide what (and whom) to believe. Kirby, the narrator, goes through a believable and wrenching transformation. Her sister Kendra, the absent twin, seems to be self-destructing, though things are not as simple as they might appear. Frangello puts some intricate twists right through to the end. Though Kirby asserts that it is both their stories, ultimately Kendra is the one I cared most about.

The Accidental by Ali Smith

Wednesday, May 17th, 2006

#21 in my book challenge for the year was highly hyped The Accidental by Ali Smith. The prose struck me immediately as more than usually challenging, though not in an obvious, arduous way. Smith worked some subtle hocus pocus behind the scenes. The book shifts among five points of view, four of which are told in third person, only one of which is in first person. Not only does Smith pull off five distinct voices, but also five distinct styles. I was indifferent to the book at first, suspecting it of being clever rather than good. It grew to a strong finish, and further thought on it has made me appreciate it more.

One thing that bothered me, though, was that the text of the book wasn’t justified. I wonder if this was done deliberately to unsettle, because it certainly did so to me. I never knew how comforting typesetting was until I experienced its absence in this book.

Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald

Saturday, May 13th, 2006

#20 in my book challenge for the year, Fall on Your Knees has been on my shelf since 1998. It was a recommendation from my friend Queenie, whose past picks (Alias Grace, Bee Season, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, The Intuitionist, Plainsong, among others) were both intelligent and entertaining. At 500+ densely printed pages in trade paperback, though, its size put me off. But since part of this year’s book challenge is to read those poor souls gathering dust unread on the shelf, I finally gave it my time. This is a big, juicy novel with lots of characters and time shifts and a secret that took me by surprise. I especially loved two characters–Materia and her daughter Frances–and couldn’t quite bring myself to hate some others, no matter how nastily they behaved. There’s lots of painful stuff, but there’s also lots of joy, and I enjoyed the time I spent with the Cape Breton family, and am now off to dig up my Natalie MacMaster and Ashley MacIsaac CDs.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Monday, May 8th, 2006

#19 in my book challenge for the year is the ubiquitously reviewed Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. He wrote three previous novels, the first and third of which were nominated for the Man Booker prize. Most writers do their autobiographical stuff first, and move on to more complicated stuff. Mitchell, whose previous three novels are both lauded and derided for their intricacy, saved his autobiographical bildungsroman for his fourth book. He and others have noted how unusual this is. The benefit to this method is that it’s a really well-written personal novel. The drawback is that it’s frequently so well-written that it ejected me from the narrative, which was told in what is supposed to be the voice of a 13-year- old boy in 1982 suburban England. Yes, the character is a poet, and yes, he has developed a complex interior life in reaction to his stammering problem. Neither of these, though, completely convinced me that certain sentences and certain insights were congruent with the 13-year-old narrator. For example, “Mr. Nixon, the headmaster, dashed past the doorway, emitting fumes of anger and tweed.” and “….the villagers wanted the Gypsies to be gross, so the grossness of what they’re not acts as a stencil for what they are.” It became clear as I read that Mitchell had set himself a difficult task, at which I think he partially succeeded–trying to write in the voice a boy who aspires to be a good writer, but isn’t there yet. In the end, though, I liked the book so well, and the characters in it, that I gave in and dismissed any quibbles that the voice wasn’t consistently believable. The book is the definition of bittersweet, veering between sadness and humor, with great characters.

Reviews, discussions, and interviews (strangely Seattle-centric links via Blog of a Bookslut):
Entertainment Weekly
CBC Canada
The Guardian: The Digested Read
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Seattle Times
Christian Science Monitor
The Stranger
New York Observer
Village Voice
The Book Standard
Seattle Weekly
The New Yorker

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

#18 in my book challenge for the year is Wuthering Heights. I wanted to read this as a contrast to Pride and Prejudice. Austen’s work is bright, sparkly, and romantic. Wuthering Heights is dark, twisted, and hardly romantic–it’s more horrific, in my opinion. There are so many fascinating things about it: the character of Heathcliff, who is cruel and yet difficult to despise; the multi-layered narrative; the Shakespearean mix of tragedy capped by a tidy wedding. Many of its influences are clear, as are its progeny. Yet it stands as a singular work, the only novel by its author, and a novel unlike any other.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

Sunday, April 23rd, 2006

#17 in my book challenge for the year, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was an interesting complement to Capote, the film. Capote the author only let himself creep into the narrative in two places near the end. Once, he refers to a friend of Perry Smith, and another time to a journalist who is friendly with both Perry and Dick. It is odd to recognize that this book was the precursor both to true-crime thrillers and the creative non-fiction genre, both of which are so prevalent today.

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

#16 in my book challege for the year is Dillard’s tiny but powerful Holy the Firm. I finally read the copy I purchased so long ago that the friend who recommended it is no longer in my life. The book is more of a keeper than the friend was. More poetic than prosaic, it’s beautifully written, sometimes painfully so. A wandering, but not meandering, meditation on faith, it plumbs some of the same territory as Anne Lamott’s Travelling Mercies, though in a very different way.

There is no one but us…., a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead–as if innocence had ever been–and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been. There have been generations which remembered, and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day. Yet some have imagined well, with honesty and art, the detail of such a life, and have described it with such grace, that we mistake vision for history, dream for description, and fancy that life has devolved. So. You learn this studying any history at all, especially the lives of artists and visionaries; you learn it from Emerson, who noticed that the meanness of our days is itself worth our thought; and you learn it, fitful in your pew, at church.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susannah Clarke

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

#15 in my book challenge for the year, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell took me over three weeks to read. I didn’t resent the time, in fact, I was sorry to be done. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and its characters and I admired the book for its craft. Both the characters and the story are complex and well drawn. The prose is appealingly Austen-ish, and I was glad to read JS&MN so soon after Pride and Prejudice. Clarke’s homages of prose, humor,and character were easy to see when read in proximity. This book was one I owned, but for a long time I doubted I would read it at all. To a person, everyone I knew who read the book, my husband G. Grod included, merely liked it. No one owned to loving it, and I thought one should love a book that’s so long. But when my friend Becca said she had just finished it, I decided to give it a try, since it’s one I already own.

(Aside: I thought I already noted that this year’s book challenge would be less about the number of books, and more about reading books I already own. Yet I can’t find that in an entry. Perhaps I imagined that I wrote it. But I mean it.)

I am curious why I liked JS&MN so much better than others did. The reviews are so good it’s almost ridiculous. Did the others have high expectations based on reviews, while I had lowered ones based on the non-glowing feedback of friends? G. Grod will offer only that he thought Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle books are so much better that JS&MN suffers in comparison. I haven’t yet read the Baroque Cycle, so I don’t have that potentially unflattering contrast. I entreat any readers who have read JS&MN to comment.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd

Wednesday, April 5th, 2006

#14 in my book challenge for the year was V for Vendetta. The mixed reviews of the movie prompted me to re-read this. It was one of my “gateway” comics–one that someone else gave me to introduce me to the medium. It worked, where Watchmen and Dark Knight hadn’t. For that alone, it will always have a place on my shelf. V is both dated and less polished than some of Moore’s other, later works. But the creators’ obvious passion for their tale drives the story through the early, more clumsy chapters to its dark, complex middle and conclusion. It’s still a compelling read, and one I enjoyed enough that I’m not going to tamper with by going to see the movie.

Hicksville by Dylan Horrocks

Tuesday, April 4th, 2006

#13 in my book challenge for the year is Dylan Horrocks’s excellent graphic novel Hicksville; it’s a self-referential tale, a history of comics, a romance, a mystery, and more. It’s been almost five years between issues of Atlas, Horrocks’s related follow-up project. I hope the wait for Atlas #3 is somewhat less long.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Tuesday, April 4th, 2006

#12 in my book challenge for the year, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is such a polished novel that it almost sparkles. I want to revisit this book more often. The prose and the characters are a joy to spend time with.